By Dave Warner
PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - A Philadelphia judge presiding over a Catholic church sex abuse trial should step down because her comment that there is widespread sexual abuse in the church shows a bias against a Monsignor accused in the case, the cleric's lawyers said on Thursday.
Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina said in court last week: "Anybody that doesn't think there is widespread sexual abuse within the Catholic Church is living on another planet."
Monsignor William Lynn, the highest ranking Philadelphia Archdiocese cleric accused in the case, is charged with child endangerment and conspiracy over allegations he allowed predator priests to continue involvement with children.
"This statement by the court raises concerns that it harbors a firm predisposed opinion against the Catholic Church and its representatives," Lynn attorneys Thomas Bergstrom and Jeffrey Lindy wrote in a petition filed on Wednesday requesting the judge recuse herself from the case.
Lynn, 61, the former secretary of the clergy for the Philadelphia Catholic archdiocese, is one of five defendants in the child sex abuse case. Jury selection in Lynn's trial is set to begin on February 21.
Two current priests, one former priest and a former archdiocese schoolteacher are charged with sexually abusing children between 1996 and 1999.
Lynn's lawyers attached to the petition a statement by the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, an anti-defamation organization based in New York.
"Judge Sarmina should step down immediately," a press release from the Catholic League said. "Her remark, whether based on ignorance or bias, demonstrates her inability to preside over any trial concerning allegations of priestly sexual abuse."
The judge's office declined to comment, saying Sarmina was prohibited from speaking on cases before her. Lynn's attorneys also declined to comment, citing Judge Sarmina's standing gag order in the case.
(Editing By Barbara Goldberg, Greg McCune and Cynthia Johnston)